The Babe's birthday is still a hit

Ruth: On a day for football, baseball fans gather to honor the original home-run king.

Applause still rings for Sultan of Swat

February 07, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

On Super Bowl Sunday, while a good portion of a football-loving nation was watching the pregame shows on TV, a few brave fans made a pilgrimage to the Baltimore birthplace of a ballplayer from another sport who would have turned 110 yesterday.

Call them the Babe Ruth faithful.

"He might have drunk and caroused with women, but he was still the greatest," said Stan Zelaskowski, 56, of Cumberland, who called his Ruth-signed baseball one of his most treasured possessions.

Zelaskowski and the dozens of others found occasion to don Babe Ruth ties, wear Ruth T-shirts emblazoned with his Yankees number 3 and discuss whether the St. Mary's Industrial School that Ruth attended for 12 years was truly a "reform school" or just one for "wayward youth."

"Our job is to preserve the legacy of the greatest athlete in the history of the world," Michael L. Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, told the crowd of about 40 who gathered for a noontime cake-cutting celebration.

Each year, on Feb. 6, the fans assemble not in the House that Ruth Built - that's Yankee Stadium in the Bronx - but in the one at 216 Emory St. in Baltimore that saw the Babe when he was still one.

The red-brick rowhouse in Ridgely's Delight where George Herman Ruth Jr. was born in 1895 will stay open until this fall. Then it will close for renovations during the winter to make the two-story museum fully accessible to the handicapped.

The home's reopening, Gibbons said, will coincide with the beginning of the 2006 baseball season.

Although he left the game in the 1930s, Ruth remains a reference point for major events in the baseball world today.

The famed "Curse of the Bambino" had hung over the Red Sox for decades, allegedly because the team dared to sell Ruth after the 1919 season and was cursed with never winning another world championship. That all ended in October when Boston finally captured the World Series, breaking the curse.

And just last week, the Sultan of Swat had his reign as Baltimore's most powerful slugger challenged a bit by the arrival of Sammy Sosa, the only player to hit 60 home runs in three straight seasons. Ruth's most famous major-league records were the 1927 single-season home run total of 60 and his lifetime home run mark of 714, both of which have been surpassed.

"I still consider him to be the greatest person ever from Baltimore," said William Connery, 56, of Alexandria, who grew up in Upper Fells Point.

Ruth retired from baseball in 1935. On Aug. 16, 1948, he died of throat cancer in New York, and was buried at the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y.

That's also where Gerry Markey's mother is buried.

So the 70-year-old resident of Crofton said he has always shared a special connection with his baseball hero. He told his daughter more than a decade ago the only thing he wanted for his birthday - which falls on the same day as Ruth's - was a membership at The Babe's birthplace and museum.

The bats used by Ruth held in the museum are his favorite items.

"Have you seen the one in the other room? It's like a club," said Markey, now a museum volunteer.

Only months before his death, an ailing Ruth used a bat as a cane when he made his last, albeit ceremonial, appearance in a Yankees uniform. The bat Ruth leaned on was pitcher Bob Feller's Louisville Slugger Model 125. Ruth's appearance at home plate, captured in Nat Fein's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, now covers the Ruth Museum's far wall.

The Feller bat was stolen after the 1948 game, according to Gibbons. The bat surfaced again in the 1990s and was purchased by Feller for display at the Bob Feller Museum in Iowa. Now Baltimore museum officials have it.

Unveiled for the first time in Baltimore yesterday, it's on loan from the Feller Museum through the end of the next baseball season, Gibbons said. It joins five other bats used by Ruth and held by the museum.

"You just have to remember what he accomplished and how good he was with kids," said Greg Smith, 44, of York, Pa., who stood with his 12-year-old son, Ty, next to the glass-encased wooden bat yesterday. "We still have so much to learn from him."

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